Pasture conditions a hardship for area producers

Hubbel French plants triticale seed in this field off Walton Farm Road west of Woodstock on Wednesday. Hot weather has dried area pastures for cattle and farmers are having to supplement feed for their herds. Rich Cooley/Daily

As a result of the hot, dry weather from July through September, producers who graze livestock are facing some hardship this autumn.

Bobby Clark, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for agricultural and natural resources, said that many producers have begun feeding livestock hay a lot earlier than usual, rather than allowing less expensive pasture grazing.

Clark said that the drier summer conditions significantly hurt grass growth across the Shenandoah, Warren, Clarke, Page and Frederick counties.

“On average, in this area, farmers feed hay 130 to 150 days out of the winter,” Clark said, noting that most producers typically do not start feeding hay bales until after Thanksgiving.

Many farmers, like Doug and Hubbel French of Franley Farms in Woodstock, have already begun feeding hay — a full 60-80 days ahead of schedule.

Hubbel French noted they began feeding hay to their 210 head of cattle in August.

French said they have had to feed 80 rolls of hay, but he added that they will likely be fine due to the feed they have in storage from the previous season.

“I got more than enough feed to feed what need to feed even if we got to feed all the way from now until spring,” French said.

Clark noted that, based on data from the 2010 USDA Ag Census, that the financial blowback from this early feeding could be $3.5 million just for beef cattle producers.

“It’ll affect some horse people and stocker people and dairy people, and there will be more on it than that,” he said. “By the time I take the effort of getting the feed, the hay and feeding the hay, I’m probably like well over $100 a head.”

French said that he believes “we went drier for a longer period of time” compared to previous summers.

“It takes a long time for our pastures to catch up,” French said. “They’re catching up now, but our pastures are only catching up because we have pulled our cows off of most of our pastures.”

French said they decided to remove their cattle from the pastures in order to save as much of the fields as possible for the fall months.

Clark said recent rain across the northern portions of the valley was “a big help” for the pastures.

“The grass is growing again right now,” Clark said, noting that farmers who planted small grain products are seeing growth and germination from the latest rain.

“It’s not a lot of moisture. We need some more, but the rains we’ve gotten have helped,” Clark said.

“I kind of want to see how the next two-three weeks pan out,” Clark said. “If it stays warm and wet, and we get a good bit of rain, the grass may be in pretty good shape … and it won’t be as bad.”

French said he thinks they will see a little bit of growth, depending on how much rain falls and when the first frost appears.

“This time of year, we don’t need as much rain because it’s not so hot. If we get a couple more inches between now and the first frost, we’ll be fine,” French said.

Even with the pasture conditions, Clark expressed optimism about the season as a whole. He said corn yields for the season will likely end up being respectable, while soybeans are going to be average at best.

“With grain being the way it is, cattle prices are high. So the fact that farmers are paying a little bit more in feed … in the grand scheme, those things kind of help each other out,” Clark said.

“If I put blinders on to everything else and just look at pasture growth, it’s really close to being disastrous,” he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com